WWII US Navy Corpsman Arnold Cole: A Rock and A Twist of Fate Saved His Life


Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal’s iconic picture of the raising of the US flag on Mount Suribachi on February 23, 1945. It was the first time during WWII that the American flag flew on Japanese soil.


“Among the Americans serving on Iwo island, uncommon valor was a common virtue.”    Fleet Admiral Chester A. Nimitz


Iwo Jima, known as Sulfur Island in Japanese, is eight square miles in size and 660 miles south of Tokyo, Japan.


The American invasion of Iwo Jima, designated Operation Detachment, took place from February 19 – March 26, 1945.  The island was of critical importance as a staging area for attacks on the Japanese main islands.

Arnold “Arnie” Cole was born to homesteaders in Beulah, North Dakota, on October 9, 1924.  The family later moved to Wyoming and then to Billings, Montana, where he lived when he heard about the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on December 7, 1941.  He was only 17 years old.  His father signed a consent form, so he could enlist.  Arnie joined the United States (US) Navy.

After military basic and specialty training, Arnie was assigned to the 5th Marine Division, 26th Marine Regiment, as a hospital corpsman.  In a 2007 interview with the National Museum of the Pacific War in Fredericksburg, Texas, he said, “They assign you to a company of men, and you have to take as good care of them as you can.”

The first day of the Battle of Iwo Jima, February 19, 1945, Arnie landed on the island.  

US Navy corpsmen were issued a .45 caliber pistol, and Arnie managed to “grab” a .30 caliber M-1 Garland rifle also.  He explained in his interview the danger corpsmen face.


Interviewer:  Did you get an opportunity to use your weapon or your forty-five or anything or were you just tending mostly wounds?

Mr. Cole:  No, both ways.  I had picked up a little .30 caliber rifle, and I took all my stuff that identified me as a corpsman, threw it all away, and got me a bag and put all my stuff in a bag.

Interviewer:  Did they single out corpsmen trying to shoot them?

Mr. Cole:  They got corpsmen first.

Interviewer:  Is that right?  Is that because he’s supposed to take care of the others?

Mr. Cole:  When they got one corpsman, they got 25 marines.


Arnie moved with the marines from the southern Mount Suribachi area of the island up to the Japanese airfields in the middle of the island and then beyond.  His 33rd day on Iwo Jima he was shot.


Interviewer:  Oh, you say you got hit?

Mr. Cole:  Oh, yes, I got shot.  An Arisaka got me.

Interviewer:  Where were you hit?

Mr. Cole:  Got me in the chest.

Interviewer:  Oh, right in the chest.

Mr. Cole:  I’m a company aid man.  I do what the hell has to be done, so I immediately stuck a rock in the hole in my back and laid back on it.  I had a sucking chest wound, so I had to lay back, and I held my hand over the hole in the front so I could breathe.  The hospital corpsman is a god, you know, we’re treated like kings by the Marine Corps.  They immediately grabbed me and threw me into a poncho and took me out of there.  That was back to a battalion aid station.  


Then his life was saved again by a twist of fate.


Interviewer:  Did you go to a hospital ship when they took you offshore?

Mr. Cole:  Yes.

Interviewer:  They had one there?

Mr. Cole:  No, I went back to a battalion aid station, and then they put me on the USS Queens which was a converted transport ship to a hospital ship. From there, they took me back to Guam.  I was bleeding so bad and was losing so much blood that the doctor dumped two of us off at Guam.  He didn’t want to bury us at sea.  He dumped us off on gurneys.  They rolled the gurneys into the morgue.  What happened with me is somebody, I’m told, heard me groan or grunt or something, and they grabbed me and hauled me back in.  When they found me, I had a green tag tied to my toe, dead.


Arnie stayed on Guam for a time and then was transferred to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, and on to San Diego, California.  He spent two years in US Navy hospitals recovering from his wounds.

Arnie was 20 years old when he was shot on Iwo Jima.  He lost his right lung, eight ribs, and shoulder girdle.  And during his interview with the museum he said, “I lost three companies of men” [that he could not save].




Twenty-seven Medals of Honor were awarded for the Battle of Iwo Jima.  Fourteen of the Medals of Honor were awarded posthumously.

US Secretary of the Navy, James V. Forrestal, was on the island on D-Day plus four (February 23, 1945) and witnessed the raising of the US flag on Mount Suribachi.

The US military occupied Iwo Jima until 1968 when it was returned to Japan.

Arnold Cole’s full interview can be found in the digital archives of the National Museum of the Pacific War in Fredericksburg, Texas.  The link is http://digitalarchive.pacificwarmuseum.org/cdm/search/searchterm/Arnold%20Cole/order/nosort